The U.S. and Iran: A Pathology of Paternalism


Hi all,

Here is an updated version of the same article I put on my blog yesterday. It may very well change before making its way onto the LSE Ideas blog site. Please do tell me what you think.

The U.S. and Iran: A Pathology of Paternalism

With articles in Foreign Affairs brandished with such titles as: “Time to Attack Iran,” and ”What Happens after Israel Attacks Iran,” it is little wonder why many of us fell that we are being primed for an eventual showdown between the U.S., Israel, and Iran. We must be aware, however, that the script is not a new one, nor the actors staging this tragic comedy. Tragic, it has become for many reasons; comic for only few, and sadly for the same reasons it is tragic. This article explores the perceptions underpinning what the author considers to be a growing discourse of war ‘inevitability.’


A list of terrible choices to choose from


The oscillating ocean of international relations has once again engulfed the question of Iran in its tidal wave. An ‘international community,’ we are told, has reached ‘near consensus’ over the malignant designs of Iran’s nuclear program. The hypotheses speak of cataclysmic future implications for the region and the rest of the world. Suspending rational thought, we are asked to overlook questions regarding evidence for such doomsday prognoses. The perception of an Iran gone nuclear is presented as more ominous now than ever, even though it has been a recycled threat for the past two decades. It is a threat that has readily been used by Israeli politicians, Israeli lobbies in the U.S., consecutive U.S. administrations, and Congressional members alike. It is enveloped in a discourse that teaches us that the remaining alternatives are restricted to:


            (1) A continued cocktail of sanctions and ‘diplomacy’ aimed at halting nuclear             enrichment. The objective being to force the Iranian delegation back to the             negotiating table to be reprimanded for its ‘irrational behaviour.’ It comes             under the auspices of the Obama administration’s dual track policy, which for             intents and purposes is a continuation of the Clinton dual containment policy             and Bush’s neoconservative policy and the Axis of Evil.


            (2) Being dragged into an open military confrontation together with Israel, or             limited strategic military strikes. These are pre-emptive strikes, which Alan             Dershowitz argues, ‘Israel has every legal and moral right to pursue.’

            (3) Suffering the consequences of inaction and having to deal with

            the perilous prospect of living with a nuclear Iran.


The worst film to date


The problem with this story line is that it readily omits the myopic fixation of the ‘international community,’ with the United States at its helm, which equates the country of Iran solely to its nuclear capability. Its existence as a nation-state, culture, and civilization has beco... Its people, their ambitions, and dreams are made irrelevant, in the name of presumed ’national,’ ’regional,’ and ’global’ interests. Absent too are the agents creating these messages, as they continue to pass as mere message bearers, not the architects of its design.


Much is said about the shadow war unfolding, where the Jason Bourne’s of Israel and Iran (and perhaps the U.S.) murder scientists on the streets of Tehran, and attempt to kill diplomats in New Delhi and Tbilisi. Without much credible evidence as yet to substantiate such claims, the results, nevertheless, are devastatingly real and undeniable. Journalists run stories, without divulging all their sources, of elaborate plots of an Iranian-American used car salesmen, the Mexican drug cartel, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard plans to kill a Saudi Ambassador on U.S. soil. Scripts that even Charles Bronson would find difficulty taking on, and that would surely never see the light of day in a courtroom. Be that as it may, other similar scenarios are supposedly being hatched and scheduled to take place in the U.S. Republican presidential candidates have used these speculations to sound the alarm of national security.


The taboo of diplomacy


The U.S., Israeli, and Iranian governments have entangled themselves in a match of shadow boxing. Ambiguity in rhetoric on one side is mirrored by mixed signals of intention on the other. The U.S.’s most readily comes under the panoply of  ‘all options are on the table,’ while glimpses of Iranian nuclear plants point to the supposed evolution of its nuclear program. While neither side seems willing to budge, the ambiguity employed is helpful in pandering to particular domestic audiences. Diplomacy has pre-emptively been shorn time and time again. Be that as it may, many missed opportunities, such as the swap for isotopes early on in Obama’s presidency, could have produced an opening to rid this acidic relationship of some of its mistrust. Sadly, however, the common and comfortable path of following defunct and antiquated policies still reigns supreme. The Obama administration opted in this instance to push for more sanctions before the proposed deadline for diplomacy had been met. It was believed that China and Russia were to vote in favour of the new round of sanctions, and therefore the other track was chosen.


Misbehaving kids


From the clientalist days of the Shah, to the revolutionary moment in which we ‘lost Iran,’ the U.S. has been grappling with its own regime of truth, a regime in which the father figure feels impelled to first properly scold his son before letting him back into the house. The son, cognizant that heeding his father’s demands will result in placing him under more scrutinizing supervision, is fearful of suspending his already limited sense of freedom. This also occurs at a time when the father is uncertain of the paths that many of his ‘other children’ take. Having broken somewhat free, they are more focused on themselves than merely listening to the dictates of the father (the Arab revolutions). Nevertheless, a particular son now thinks himself capable of pushing his father’s hand, dictating his father’s next move.


Perhaps it’s a pipe dream


The two met this week, with Obama first declaring to an AIPAC audience that he has Israel’s back. He also shook Netanyahu’s hand after the Prime Minister semantically fused the U.S. with Israel, making the two one with regards to their stance against Iran. Obama turned quickly to rebuke GOP candidates for ‘beating the drums of war,’ while simultaneously failing in his own opportunity to put to rest some of the images of an Israeli Frankenstein stealing the show. Obama could have told Netanyahu that both he and the media can cease talk of the invisible hand of Machiavellian fortuna, or the supposed zeitgeist that mindlessly leads America down the path of another protracted war. This, we are made to believe, is to happen the very moment Israel decides to tell the U.S. that ’we are already on our way.’


Others say one must focus on domestic stumbling blocks, such as Congressional and lobby efforts that push for more sanctions and the removal of the Mujahedin-e Khalq from the list of terrorist organizations. This pressure has for decades put diplomacy in a straight jacket. Nevertheless, Obama cannot continue to bide his time, as he has done with regards to Syria, and did for quite a while with Libya. Obama must now fill his earlier slogans of hope and change, the same ones that put him office, with substance and a shift in policy. He must be bold and substitute the pathology of paternalism with an understanding that the future of regional stability cannot merely involve addressing the insecurities of Israel and a handful of Gulf monarchies. Iran, as others in the region, has aspirations and fears that should be addressed, not merely brushed aside and dictated from Washington.


Perhaps it would behove the president to take an unambiguous stance vis-à-vis his Israeli counterpart and many of his own domestic constituents, by denouncing the continued Israeli efforts of provoking retributive acts by the Iranian government. An unequivocal statement against the military option would send a clear signal to the cacophony of voices who prophesize military engagement as a solution. These prophecies run counter to any evidence that they would be effective in stopping the nuclear program. Most experts agree that this option would only embolden the Iranian government’s stance. I believe, in concert with my fellow research student at SOAS Ali Fathollah-Nejad, that this is a geopolitical problem. A problem that can only be solved by an approach that many would deem utopian at the moment, that being a nuclear weapons free region. This would entail Israel, Pakistan, and India doing away with their nuclear arsenals, whilst countries like Iran open up for complete transparency and monotoring of their nuclear programs. This indeed is the only viable means to a more peaceful and secure region. However, in order to do so, the U.S. must first wrestle with its own regime of truth. The incessant urge to play the role of condescending father who feels impelled to sort out issues, which first and foremost impact the lives of those in the region. The solutions must emanate from the region and should be monitored by those same actors. With all the uncertainty surrounding how to cope with China, the advent of multi-polarity, and the revolutions of West Asia and North Africa, the U.S. should spend less time talking of the volatility and irrationality of others. They must first come to grips with their own beleaguered psyche.   


Loose accusations 


When perhaps few, I know of only one, have questioned the logic behind Iran being the main culprit of the attempted assassinations in New Delhi and Tbilisi, the time has come to critically deconstruct these freely circulating accusations. The idea that Iran, in a time of economic isolation due to crippling sanctions would alienate countries that it has cordial relations with seems at best counterintuitive. The evidence to date is either inconclusive, or non-existent. It is interesting to note that these failed attempts render more credence to the argument for further international isolation of Iran. The aforementioned countries have also been deemed by the U.S. to be sitting on the fence with regards to Iran.


An ending no one can afford


The argument that Iran is inching towards breakout capability also flies in the face of U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. It is a card the Israeli government has used from time to time since the early 1990s, proclaiming that Iran has always been 2,3 or 5 years from nuclear warheads. Two decades later the same song is sung and the same evidence is still lacking. But with over 40 U.S. military bases encircling Iran, 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, two aircraft carrier strike groups, t..., it may be fair to ask, who poses the real threat? But politics often turns into a theatrics of reverse psychology, in which those who are holding most of the cards create the illusion that it is their opponent that has the most impressive hand. This is as comical as the play will get, as a continuation of these roles will inevitably see all players drinking from the chalice of poison.


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